Embrace the Secondhand Economy

By Mira Polishook

For thousands of years, people have been sharing, trading, and gifting in a system that some today may consider to be a form of rebellion against pure consumerism: the secondhand economy. “Back in the day” this may have been viewed as part of the normal (and indeed, it still is among low-income and “hipster” communities) rather than an alternative means of obtaining goods. However, there’s no denying the significance of the secondhand economy, in the past, present, and especially in the future.

 

 

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the secondhand economy refers to the economic system in which previously used or purchased goods are bought, sold, and traded such that prior to being considered waste, the goods have had at least two owners. But whether or not you’ve even heard of the phrase, it’s a likely bet that you have encountered this unique economic system in some way. Have you ever re-gifted a gift? Been handed down a sweater from a family member? Bought a lamp at a yard sale or top at a thrift shop? Borrowed a book from the library? Then, congrats! You’ve engaged in the secondhand economy!

Perhaps you’re wondering, why the congratulations? Well, taking part in the secondhand economy– whether consciously or unconsciously– is in fact one the most practical actions you can take to live a more ethical and sustainable lifestyle! And any action that does good for you and the world deserves congratulations.  

Now that you’re aware (and as they say, awareness is the first step), it’s time to consciously embrace the secondhand economy. Here’s why you should:

  1. The environment! By obtaining and using a secondhand good, you are reducing the demand for virgin inputs (i.e. materials, energy, water, etc…), often obtained via environmentally degrading practices (like excessive pesticide use on cotton fields). You are also keeping perfectly usable goods from being wasted and sent to the landfill. In essence, when you buy a used good, you give it a second life. 
  2. Support charity, the local economy, and independent sellers! Buying secondhand ensures your money is going into good hands, whether that be charity (such as Salvation Army or American Cancer Society) or the income of an independent eBay seller. In any case, your money stays local, and in effect, supports local economic development, as opposed to serving far-off big businesses and manufacturers.

 

A local thrift shop supporting veterans.  

  1. Create community! Secondhand transactions form the basis of used-good swaps, yard sales, and libraries. These events and places can serve to strengthen community relationships. 
  2. Money-saving and money-making! Everyone loves a good deal, and because the retail value of a new product drops the moment it is purchased, there is no surer way to get a good deal than by purchasing secondhand (the exception, of course, being certain large-value purchases that appreciate over time). Even better, a large number of items can be obtained for free– everything from family hand-me-downs (or hand-me-ups) to simple acts of giving or re-gifting. On the other hand, reselling new-but-unused or used goods is a relatively quick and straightforward way to make money. See below for a list of opportunities, both in-person and online, to earn a few extra bucks.

 There are other, more informal, reasons. For instance, there is a certain sense of pride in being able to tell someone that your unique dress is a hand-me-down from your grandmother. Likewise, secondhand pieces are fantastic conversation starters– mention that your coffee table is secondhand, and you’ll instantly spark a great discussion on the merits of secondhand goods. Additionally, some people find that thrifting is like an adventure; the thrill of treasure-hunting through physical and online thrift stores for the perfect item can be addictive.  

 

Me, in my secondhand prom dress and heels. 

 

All my favorite books, bought secondhand from Thrift Books.

Do you want to begin exploring the power and the positives of the secondhand economy? Here are some resources or points of inspiration to help you dive in, and note that if one of these resources is not available to you, considering creating it yourself. 

  1. Physical/in-person (i.e. local opportunities)
    1. Donation-based thrift and charity shops and resale/consignment stores
    1. Yard and estate sales
    2. Hand-me-downs or hand-me-ups
    3. Asking to borrow from or share with family, friends, and neighbors
    4. Community-supported libraries (and not just for books/CDs!)
    5. Renting services (such as for tools or black-tie attire)
    6. Local events such as clothing swaps or used book sales
    7. Used car dealers
  1. Online
    1. Online resale stores
      1. For clothing: Poshmark, Depop, Thred Up, the Real Real
      2. For books: Thrift Books
      3. For electronics: Gazelle
      4. For just about anything: eBay
    2. Facebook
      1. Local Buy Nothing groups
      2. Local buy-sell-trade groups
      3. Facebook marketplace 

Of course, there are many disclaimers and exceptions. First of all, by no means do you have to buy everything secondhand. Not only is this impractical and time-consuming, but there are a number of socially and environmentally responsible companies creating sustainable products that also deserve your votes (i.e. your dollars) for a better world. Remember, we’re not trying to be perfect sustainable consumers, but rather doing our best within our own context. Second, there are a number of things that probably should not be purchased secondhand, most notably beauty products, undergarments, health products, and safety gear (e.g. helmets). And finally, be aware that gentrification is an up-and-coming issue when it comes to physical thrift stores. Many low-income communities rely on thrift stores for household goods and clothing. The rise in thrifting among wealthier demographics sometimes causes thrift stores to raise their prices. This should not discourage from supporting local thrift stores, but it is something that to be acknowledged.  

Collectively, we have the power to influence society and economy through our consumption habits. Let’s each embrace the secondhand economy as one of many stepping stones on the path to a more just and sustainable world. 

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